UCOP Spotlight on Research Scientist Tom DeFanti and CAVEkiosks

San Diego, October 3, 2016 Tom DeFanti is credited with designing and developing a number of immersive, 3D virtual-reality systems including the CAVE (while at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory) and then the StarCAVE, NexCAVE, and TourCAVE as a research scientist in Calit2 starting in 2005. Now his team in the Qualcomm Institute is helping to deploy a series of CAVEkiosks at four University of California libraries as part of the Catalyst archaeological visualization project. The following article on "Exploring Virtual Reality" was written by UC Berkeley student Alison Spencer for the UC IT Blog (and reprinted here with permission from the UC Office of the President):

Tom DeFanti (right) is a research scientist and pioneer of multiple virtual-reality systems, including the CAVEkiosk. Pictured with  Calit2's Greg Dawe, a long-time collaborator at University of Illinois and UC San Diego.

Twenty-five years ago, Calit2 research scientist Tom DeFanti dreamed of building 3D telephone booths. He envisioned using them to talk to multiple people at once and to transport immersive scenes and interactions between users. “I went to the network people, and they said, ‘We hope you’re kidding!’” said DeFanti. “Some people didn’t think it could/should be done.” When he first started working on the idea, he struggled to move a single image across networks. But with advancements in technology, moving larger and larger amounts of data became possible.

And while you don’t hear much about telephone booths these days, in a way, DeFanti’s dream has been realized. He works as part of a team developing 3D “CAVEkiosks” that will be placed in UC libraries. Inside these CAVEkiosks, visitors will be able to explore archaeological sites through virtual reality, collaboratively. They’ll have the chance to view places together like Petra, in exquisite detail, observing ancient carved red-rock architecture without ever leaving the library. “In some sense, it’s better than even being there,” said DeFanti. “You can see everything perfectly well in an air-conditioned environment.” And, they can take it with them if they have the consumer 3D goggles or VR smartphone apps.

Led by Tom Levy, director of the Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute, the project is called “At Risk World Heritage and the Digital Humanities.” It aims to preserve places at risk of disappearing due to war, global warming, or other causes. DeFanti sees the project as an important step in democratizing cultural heritage, since more people will have the opportunity to “visit” and thus become emotionally attached to these sites. “Appreciating other cultures is very enlightening, and it’s harder for people to be hostile when they’re educated about other people and places,” DeFanti said.

To display all this 3D data, the kiosks will utilize the Pacific Research Platform. The PRP is a research infrastructure that links the networks of all ten UC campuses as well as twelve other universities. It offers the speed and efficiency necessary to make these ambitious virtual reality displays possible. DeFanti is co-principal investigator for the PRP. Right now, he focuses on improving its security. “Campus networks deal with a constant flood of cyber filth, around 50,000 attacks a day,” he said. However, the equipment built to combat attacks slows down network speeds. “It’s like in an airport, we all line up and go through security, take our shoes off, and get slowed down going through,” said DeFanti. To minimize these interruptions, he and his team are developing more sophisticated techniques for authenticated users to bypass delays and get into the network. These new strategies will help maintain the speed of PRP networks to facilitate more efficient data sharing among scientists.

In his free time, DeFanti enjoys designing and building projects, often collaborating with his colleagues of forty-two years, Dan Sandin and Greg Dawe. DeFanti also enjoys riding motorcycles and working with his wife Kathy in their garden. While they planted an English garden in their previous home in Oak Park, Illinois, they have enjoyed learning about California natives and filling their property with succulents and sages. Whether in gardening or in developing practical uses for virtual reality, DeFanti’s vision and persistence have paid off.